Last night a friend of mine asked me to translate the Hebrew version of Job 14:4 for her friends. Her Greek and Latin are excellent, having been largely trained in Classics and Ancient History, but her Hebrew was a bit rusty. Since I was reading it, I thought I would make it the quote of the day in Hebrew (Masoretic), Greek, and Latin (Vulgate):
"Mi-yiten tahor mitame' lo' echad"
"Who can make a clean (thing) from an unclean (thing)? No one!"
"tis gar katharos estai apo hrupou; all' outheis."
"For who will be clean from unclean? But no one!"
"Quis potest facere mundum de immundo conceptum semine? nonne tu qui
"Who can make clean from an unclean seed? Is it not only you?"
Interestingly, the Latin is closest to the Hebrew for the first part, since both maintain the transitive sense of "making" something else clean, whereas the Greek takes cleanness/uncleanness as the status reflecting back upon the "who." By the way, the "can" in the Hebrew is just understood and is not found their literally, but the Latin makes this explicit. Concerning the second part, the Greek is closest to the Hebrew, both saying "no one," whereas the Latin turns to "is it not only you" (supposedly God).
I have to admit, this is hardly a verse that has ever stopped me in my tracks before. I only read it and thought of it because it stopped someone else in her tracks and she needed more information about it. But it does illustrate quite nicely how text traditions develop and change form translation to translation--and Job famously varies quite a bit in general from the Hebrew to the Greek. I have not done enough work in the Vulgate to see how this works out in Latin, but, if this verse is any indication, sometimes it will be closer to the Hebrew than the Greek and sometimes it will be further.
We should also note that the variances of translation are acts of interpretation, adapting texts to new contexts or drawing out possible latent meanings within the text, which, in turn, allows for the development of new meanings--demonstrating, luckily for me, that the act of interpretation is ongoing and neverending. Indeed, taking a second look at the larger passage, this line comes in the context of one of Job's "despondent" prayers to God, this one being about the inevitability of death and, interestingly enough, the impossibility of a new life (as can be found in nature). In a later period, where belief in life after death (outside of the shadowy world of Sheol--Job 14:13) would be more widespread and Job would be accepted as authoritative (among those same people), how these despondent lines of Job would be understood would also change. Perhaps 14:12 allowed some room for reinterpretation: "so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep." Job probably understood this in terms of "never," but after the development of the apocalyptic tradition, where there were many predictions of the earth and heavens being destroyed and replaced, this could have appeared as a sentiment promoting resurrection: resurrection when the present heavens and earth are removed.
I will be teaching Job this fall, and I am looking forward to delving into this rich text a little more deeply than I have before!